Separation of Church & State?

(Homily, 14th Sunday, B)

This Sunday's Scripture readings bring up a murky topic: prophecy. It refers not so much to telling the future (altho I will make a reference to that) but rather speaking God's word to the surrounding culture. Ezekiel knew he had to challenge a rebellious nation - whether they heeded or resisted. (Ez. 2:5)

Jesus himself seemed to be a reluctant prophet. For one thing his neighbors had put him in a mold which did not include prophecy. Jesus was an undistinguished citizen of Nazareth for about thirty years. Everyone knew him as "the carpenter, the son of Mary." (Mk 6:3) He belong to an extended family which included James, Joses and Judas (called "brothers" altho the Bible indicates that, unlike Jesus, they were not sons of Mary, cf. Mk 15:40; Jn 19:25) as well as various "sisters." People thought they had Jesus pegged. When he said things that did not fit their preconceptions, folks got uncomfortable. They wanted to get him back in his box.

Fr. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, gave an example to that kind of resistence to prophecy. He was praying on the Supreme Court steps while they debated the Nebraska law banning partial birth abortion (what its proponents refer to as late term abortion). A man approached him, "Father, what about separation of church and state?"

This has become the knee jerk response when a priest touches certain topics like abortion. Oh, Father is getting into politics. I wish he would just stick to spirituality. Let's keep church and state separate.

Now, Fr. Pavone had thought about the church-state issue so he knew how to reply. He asked the man a hypothetical question: "Suppose a new religion emerged which as part of their ceremony tortured and killed infants. Should the government stand aside and tolerate their activity?"

"Of course not," the man replied.

"Why not?" pressed Fr. Pavone, "What about separation of church and state?"

The man finally blurted out, "The government can't allow people to torture and kill babies."

Maybe "church" and "state" are not so easily separated as we sometimes suppose. We would not allow a group to hide behind conscience, privacy or right to choose so they could torture children. Out of concern for the common good the government can regulate religious groups. On the other hand we are convinced the common good cannot exist in isolation from a higher law. Do you see what I am saying? As honest citizens some of us (not just priests) may have a duty to speak up when human laws fail to respect the divine law.

We American Catholics are in similar position to Jesus at the end of his thirty years in Nazareth. We've made our contribution and then some. Consider our little parish school: we save other taxpayers the cost of educating 265 children - over a million dollars a year.** Multiply that by thousands of parroquial schools. We Catholics have done everything to succeed, to fit in. It would be easy for us to continue in that mold. But we cannot do so and still be faithful to Jesus.

Cardinal William Keeler, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops, made that point last week when the Supreme court struck down a law banning partial birth abortion:

"This disturbing decision should be a wake-up call to the people of this country. Roe v. Wade continues to operate as nothing less than a license to destroy innocent human life. Today the Court allows not only the destruction of children inside their mothers, but children mostly outside the womb as well." (full text)

I will be honest with you. I do not relish the idea of challenging people on abortion - or any other moral issue. There is a big difference between Jesus and me. He was without sin. I am not. Anyone who does not like what I have to say could readily find inconsistencies in my life - and yours. Those who promote abortion, homosexual unions, etc. have used that strategy with devastating effect. However, it misses the point. We do not put ourselves forward as paragons of virtue, but as citizens concerned for the common good.

Suppose there was a neighborhood in Seattle where gangs could roam freely, robbing purses from elderly ladies, beating up children and stealing their bicycles. Suppose further the people, out of fear of criticism, just stood by and watched. Would anyone want to live in such a neighborhood? They could have the most beautiful homes in the world, but the property value would be zero. The same applies to our country. We can have the hottest economy, but if people stand by while nine month old unborn babies are killed, the value of our nation will be zero. If, as a society, we don't extend protection to a viable pre-born child, who will we protect?

Having said that, I want to remind you that changing unjust laws is only a small part of this struggle. What counts is winning hearts. If we start out by condemning, we lose. To save another's soul I have to first be aware of my own sins. When I approach an abortion proponent, I do so as a forgiven sinner anxious to offer him a free gift. He longs for forgiveness as much as me or anyone else.

Let's face it. We have not gotten very far using logic and science to convert our pro-choice friends. Logic tells us that if we shrink in horror at the idea of killing a baby one minute after birth we should feel the same about destroying a baby one minute before birth. And science has given us the visual evidence of continuous human development from conception to birth. In this matter, logic and science are on our side. What we don't have are their hearts. We will only win souls by calling them to forgiveness and healing.

People resist that. They want to categorize us as the "religious right" so they don't have to deal with what we are saying. We can expect stronger opposition if we continue to advance Jesus' teaching. The Third Secret of Fatima may be preparing us for what we will face in the future. Besides its symbolic meaning of spiritual martyrdom, it could have a quite literal application. But, as Ezekiel indicates, we shrink from it at the peril of losing many souls - including our very own.

Fr. Phil Bloom


*According to David E. Kapel of Rowan University: "The public schools per student average cost ranged from $6,365 to $7,874. The privates ranged from $6,365 to $9,150 and the Catholic school range was from $1,743 to $3,335" A National Study On The Viability Of School Choice. In 1998 it cost the Seattle School District $7,639 per pupil. See Seattle Public Schools 1997-1998 Annual Report. At that rate Holy Family School saves taxpayers $2,024,335 a year!

From Archives (14th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2018: My Grace is Sufficient
2015: Building on Strength Week 1: Scripture as Word of God
2012: Mary Opens a Window (about "brothers & sisters" of Jesus)
2009: Some Requests
2006: How Jesus Handled a Put Down
2003: Insults and Persecution
2000: Separation of Church & State?
1997: "The Conscience of our State"

Cardinal Mahoney: On a Woman's "Right to Choose" - Please Finish the Sentence

Other Homilies